The cheapest model in a prestige car maker’s line up is often the most important. It is invested with the responsibility of delivering the company pitch, articulating its ‘mission statement’, defining the very essence of the brand not to the few, but to the many. It creates an important gateway. Customers from less badge-conscious marques either decide to walk through or stick with the mainstream.
Little wonder, then, that the BMW 1-series is such a good car: it can’t afford not to be. The task of creaming business from mass-market stalwarts such as VW and Ford has never been harder. You could argue that with its controversial design and compromised packaging, the One isn’t exactly making life easy for itself. BMW says that, on the contrary, these are part of what makes the 1-series interesting. And it’s a conceit you feel inclined to indulge because, quite clearly, the car has been engineered to connect just as vividly and immediately with a keen driver’s pleasure centres as the 3-series and 5-series. If BMW had to present the 1-series as the sole example of what it does, it wouldn’t be found wanting.
Except, perhaps, in one rather ironic respect: satisfaction under the bonnet. It isn’t that BMW hasn’t covered most bases with its entry-level offering. Just a little odd that, so far, the biggest performance hit is provided by a diesel (the 120d – 163bhp, 250lb ft, 137mph, 0-62mph 7.9sec) and that the most muscular petrol-engined version (120i – 150bhp, 148lb ft, 135mph, 0-62mph 8.7sec) falls frustratingly short of feeling truly sporty, despite posting reasonable figures. It’s telling, too, that comfortably the best-selling 1-series to date is the comparatively meek 115bhp 116i, which suggests that owning a BMW for the least cash is a more powerful urge than upgrading to the somewhat so-so 120i given the price difference: £15,690 versus £18,320.
Well, now the hole has been plugged, and with a model that promises to bring some subjective sparkle to the party, if not a shedload of shove. The new 118i (sampled here as the plushly equipped £19,130 SE, though prices start at £17,130) introduces a fifth engine variant to the range. Driving the rear wheels via a five-speed manual gearbox and developing 129bhp at 5750rpm and 133lb ft of torque at 3250rpm, the bi-Vanos and Valvetronic equipped 2.0-litre unit complies with Euro4 emissions regulations and returns nearly 39mpg for the combined cycle. BMW claims a top speed of 130mph and zero to 62mph in 9.4sec, respectively a modest 5mph and 0.7sec down on the six-speed 120i. As well as being £1190 cheaper than the 120i in basic form, the 118i is also rated two insurance groups lower.
All 118i models come with a five-speed manual gearbox, six airbags and a CD player. The SE tested here gets 16-inch alloys, automatic climate control, rear parking sensors and front fog lights. Not that you’ll be scratching around for more if you’ve got the spare change. Our test car’s alloys, electric windows, powered front seat adjustment, sports seats and upgraded stereo with six-disc CD changer would set you back a further £2085.
On the road
All right, the new 2.0 isn’t any sort of substitute for a genuinely powerful engine. But it does have the kind of eager character that endears. Come 3500rpm, it flicks into energetic mode and closes on the 6500rpm red line with considerable verve and classy smoothness. What’s more, it goes for it with a subtle layer of induction growl that gets you in the mood for more of the same. The gearchange is punch-click positive, too.
In fact, a reassuring and likable tautness informs the 118i’s dynamic profile. The chassis avoids wasted effort and allows you to attack any kind of road with almost sublime levels of confidence. It feels unflappable and fast and corners a nimbleness that eludes many of its boxier rivals. Thankfully, the steering isn’t quite as heavy as the 120i’s around town but, out on the open road, it turns in just as keenly, adjusts its line deftly and feeds back at least a primary colour picture of the road surface, if not a huge amount of detail. It feels secure and grippy but has a well-developed sense of flow and absorbs mid-bend bumps with an easy-going pliancy and remarkably little noise from the suspension and tyres.
The 1-series doesn’t even try to compete with the Golfs and Focuses of this world when it comes to space and practicality. Yes, it’s a four-seater, but it only just gets away with it. BMW’s desire to please with its deep understanding of ergonomic design serves it better. There’s a surety of line and lightness of touch that makes even the new Golf seem a little heavy-handed in places. If what we’re talking is smart and clean-cut, then the BMW sets the class standard. It has the best and sportiest driving position, the most comfortable and supportive front seats, the clearest instruments and the slickest switchgear.
But that’s pretty much the story of the 1-series: the driver’s interests come first. Which is why the 118i is an apt addition. What the 2.0-litre engine lacks in outright muscle, it more than makes up for in spirit.